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Did Chairman Mao ride a Moulton?

Flying Phoenix on head tube

1. Flying Phoenix on head tube

The Phoenix pirated Moulton

In the mid 1980s, a strange small-wheeled bicycle was bought second-hand very cheaply in London. The machine turned out to be an unauthorised copy of the Moulton bicycle and was probably produced in the mid 1960s. Whilst clearly based in general on a Series 1 Moulton, the detailing and dimensions differ considerably. The rear suspension seems to be inspired more by the 14″-wheel Moulton, launched in 1966. The graphics on the machine reveal that it was produced by the Phoenix bicycle works in Shanghai, one of the biggest cycle factories in China. It begs the question, were the Communist Chinese intending to mass-produce copies of an English icon of the swinging sixties?

Soon after the machine’s discovery, Tony Hadland wrote to the factory for further information but received nothing more than a current catalogue and a polite covering letter in reply. The catalogue did not show the Moulton copy. Alex Moulton, inventor of the machine, had never heard of the Chinese copy. Years later, in November 2011, Kevin Kinsella recalled regularly seeing two of these machines in Regents Park, London, from 1975 onwards. They were being ridden by ladies from the nearby Chinese legation. Later, probably about 1977-8, he saw two Chinese children riding what were probably the same bikes. It seems likely that the bike shown below was one of these. Also in November 2011, Gonçalvo Silva reported a similar machine for sale in Portugal.

Does any reader have any further information on this enigmatic machine? Can any Chinese reader recall seeing one of these Phoenix Moultons or reading about it? Did you work in the Shanghai bicycle works in the 1960s? If so, can you shed any light? If you can, please reply to Tony Hadland.

The Phoenix Moulton’s purchaser, a Moulton enthusiast from the West Midlands who wishes to remain anonymous, carefully disassembled the machine. What follows is an edited version of the notes he made about what he found.

Comparison of front fork assemblies

2. Comparison of front fork assemblies

Photo 2 shows the unexpected difference in lengths between the front fork assemblies of (left to right): a Moulton Super 4 (14″-wheel), the Phoenix and a 1966 Kirkby-built Moulton Deluxe (16″-wheel). For this photo, all forks were pushed in to the limit of their travel and the tops of the steering columns were all accurately in line, so the displacements at the dropouts are real. That is, the Phoenix front fork assembly, although for a 16″-wheel, is actually shorter than the one used in 14″-wheel Moultons!

Going from top to bottom of the Phoenix’s front fork assembly, there are about 30 turns of thread for the locking ring (a Moulton one fits); a section of steering column of 27.2mm overall diameter (OD); a wider section of 30.2mm OD; the crown race; bottom nylon bearing with retaining ring (having about six turns of thread) and the retaining cup for the gaiter (the 16″ Moulton variety fits). Where the steering column widens out, there is a small indentation. There are four of these at 90° intervals and they apparently hold something in place, inside the column (probably the stool). The front suspension has a total travel of about 48mm.

Up inside the assembly there is a brake abutment with brake bush, surmounted by the usual rubber column/coil spring. The rubber column is 215mm long and 14.7mm diameter. The spring is made from 2.5mm diameter steel and has 30 turns, i.e. it is about the same size as that used in the 16″-wheel Moultons, and the two seem interchangeable. I am still trying to get the rest of the assembly apart but it does not seem to have a rebound spring. This is probably the reason why the fork assembly is shorter than on a genuine Moulton.

Front suspension detail

3. Front suspension detail

Photo 3 is a close-up of the front suspension, with the bearing pulled half-way down. This bearing, which is made of very transparent material, is 11.4mm high, 29.0mm diameter, and the four raised sections that hold it in place are 33.0mm OD.

Lower end of main beam

4. Lower end of main beam

Photo 4 shows the underside of the rear end of the main beam of the frame. The two holes for the pivot bolt are visible. The hole in the end of the main beam is where a concealed brake cable emerges. The interesting thing is the protruding curved bolt. This is about 94mm in length, threaded for about 30mm at the end nearest to the camera, and is 9.4mm in diameter. (There is a good deal of foreshortening in the photo and the bend is actually about two-thirds of the way down the bolt, away from the camera.) The bolt is brazed into the frame.

Rubber suspension block

5. Rubber suspension block

Photo 5 shows the astonishing piece of very hard, black rubber that is impaled on the aforementioned curved bolt before fitting the rear fork. As can be seen, it has a hole through its longest dimension, and this hole is curved and roughly concentric with the longer of the two curved surfaces. In the photo, the hole is ‘up’ as you ride the bike and the short concave surface faces towards the front. Hence the broad face is on the right-hand side of the bike as ridden. The block is asymmetrical, in spite of what the photo might suggest. The two curved surfaces are not concentric. If we assume them to be spherical (although they may not be), then their radii seem to be in the order of 25mm and 80mm. All the corners and edges of the block are rounded off, so the only accurate measurements that we can easily take are 14.5mm for the diameter of the hole and 33.2mm for the thickness of the block side to side. The density of the rubber comprising the block works out at 2.3gm/cc. It weighs 126gm.

Top view of rear fork

6. Top view of rear fork

Photo 6 shows a top view of the rear forks. The shallow ‘tray’ near the pivot takes the bottom of the rubber block. In the photo you can see the outline of where the block has been. The threaded end of the curved bolt mentioned above passes through the slot in the bottom of this tray.

The pivot bolt assembly is a wonderful piece of Meccano-style work. There is a hex-headed pivot bolt which has a diameter of 8.9mm across the bearing surface. Overall length is 79.8mm. The bearing surface is just under 60mm in length. A steel right-hand bush slides onto the pivot bolt, snugging up against the hex-head. Either side of each outside wall of the ‘tray’ in which the rubber block sits, there is a two-ply washer, approximately 2mm thick and about 30mm diameter. (Four in all.) These washers are made of a hard but pliable reddish material which is neither metal nor wood nor plastic, but which could be a very tough fibreboard. Evidence suggests that they may originally have been oil-impregnated. These washers are made of a hard but pliable reddish material which is neither metal nor wood nor plastic, but which could be a very tough fibreboard. Evidence suggests that they may originally have been oil-impregnated.

Ralf Grosser writes:  This description to me suggests that it is a material called Pertinax. ( Pertinax is yellowish to reddish brown in colour and can sometimes be mistaken for lacquered wood. Pertinax is one of the classics of man made materials. It is made of paper impregnated with a Phenol based glue  and then  moulded into shape under pressure. It predates Bakelite, and is not a real plastic as such. Pertinax was and still is mostly used as an insulator in electronics. If you look into very early German wireless sets, the circuit boards were made if it. It has in the past also been used as self-securing washers. The sleeve for the pivot bolt is about the same length as the distance between the outside of the walls of the ‘tray’ in which the rubber block sits. (In the photo you can see where the block has been.) Finally, there is a spring washer, a pair of different sized metal washers and a hex nut, to tighten up the whole pivot assembly.

Exploded view of rear suspension

7. Exploded view of rear suspension

Photo 7 is an exploded view of the rear suspension, showing how it all fits together. The rubber block is pushed onto the curved bolt and the pivot bolt assembly fitted. When the top and bottom faces of the rubber block are seated properly in their ‘trays’, the whole is secured by a thick rubber washer (pliable and slightly spongy, which acts as a rebound stop), a metal washer, two slim lock nuts and a split pin that passes through a hole in the end of the curved bolt.

Actually, the ‘curved’ bolt referred to hitherto, is more accurately described as a ‘bent’ bolt. That is, it comprises two straight sections separated by a short bent section. It is interesting to speculate whether this is deliberate or simply a shoddy piece of manufacturing. The hole through the rubber block is certainly curved and its profile does not match that of the bolt. It will not simply slide on and has to be pushed in order to fit properly.

Decal on side of frame

8. Decal on side of frame

In photo 8 you can see the transfer (decal) on the side of the main beam of the bicycle frame. Unfortunately, the lighting conditions at the time the photo was taken have bleached out the colour. The Chinese characters before the English word Phoenix also translate as ‘Phoenix’. (Thank you to Ryouta Shibata of Japan for clarifying this.) These characters and the word Phoenix are all in metallic gold with white edging – very nice! [In December 2011, Charles Chan of Hong Kong pointed out that the words FENG SHUAN in the chainwheel are the Putonghua transliteration for “phoenix”. ]

The flying Phoenix, seen in the intricate seat tube transfer at the beginning of this article, is also depicted in the head badge and is also very crudely stamped into the rear of both brake calipers. The shield-shaped design at the top of the seat tube contains two rows of Chinese characters. The top row says ‘Made in China’, the bottom ‘Shanghai Bicycle’, plus something unreadable due to damage to the transfer.

Dismantling the Phoenix was quite easy (apart from a seized front suspension spring) and not much different to dismantling a Moulton. A number 14 and a number 9 (or upside down 6) were stamped in the bottom end of the handlebar stem. The bottom bracket appeared to be British threaded.

Despite being smaller than a 16″-wheel Moulton’s frame, the Phoenix frame is noticeably heavier. When tapped, it also seems to ring more and vibrate longer. The complete single-speed machine weighs 34lb 12½oz (15.77kg).

Now see our slideshow below. Note that the chainguard and front suspension rubber bellows are missing. Particularly interesting are the rear lamp built into the tail beam, the traditional Raleigh-style front fork crown and the narrow rear carrier with parcel-clip. None of these features occurs in the genuine Moulton on which the Phoenix is based.

© All photographs accompanying this article are copyright.

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From → Small-wheelers

  1. Patrick Han permalink

    Hi Tony, this is a “trial” version of Phoenix’s very first attempt to make small wheels in the mid 1960s just before China’s Cultural Revolution. This was actually part of a more ambitious plan of the country to catch up with western technologies staring from the late 1950s. The model showed in your post is apparently an export version. There is also a so-called “domestic” version (i.e., Model BZ 01) with very different decal. I have dug into my Chinese cycle books at the time and did find a little bit about this model (which is amazing considering this model never enters into to mass production). I have a friend who happened to own both a Moulton Deluxe and BZ 01. I am preparing to write a post on Facebook (i.e., The Moulton F frame group). Hope the post can demystify this rather rare model. By the way, Phoenix was stated owned until 1990s when it was privatized and they are making very low-end products now. For vintage fans, the new Phoenix is never THE PHOENIX at that time.


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